Kubo and the Two Strings, from the stop-motion specialists at Laika (The Boxtrolls, Coraline), opens with a demanding piece of advice. “If you must blink, do it now,” a voice says just before the screen momentarily goes dark. If we fail to watch with the utmost attention, we’re told, “then our hero will surely perish.”
Of course, the flip side of such a request is that the filmmakers must then deliver something that deserves careful watchfulness. Kubo and the Two Strings does, for the most part, thanks to the textured, eye-popping animation that is the studio’s hallmark. (When a character steps across a pebble walkway, we not only hear the stones, but feel them.) If the movie gets tripped up by a storyline that has maybe two or three strings too many, that’s easy enough to forgive.
That opening sequence is a stunner, as a woman—swaddled child across her chest—navigates enormous ocean swells in a small boat. At one point a wall of water rises so high as to block out the moon, although director Travis Knight and his team add the shivery touch of having the moon’s glow seep through the translucent wave. The woman and her son eventually wash up on shore, and the movie then catches up with them years later. This is Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) and his silent mother, who now live in seclusion in a cave.
These early scenes of Kubo caring for his near-comatose parent, burdened by her unspoken past, have a deep sadness. Thankfully they’re lightened by Kubo’s visits to a nearby village, where he performs adventure stories in the marketplace using elaborate origami. These are stories he once heard from his mother, and as the movie goes on we learn that they may be based more in reality than fantasy—and may indeed soon play out in Kubo’s actual life.
The origami conceit is the movie’s meta stroke of genius.
The origami conceit is the movie’s meta stroke of genius. When Kubo plays a chord from his shamisen, it brings his elaborate paper constructions to life: a brave samurai, a deadly spider, a comical chicken. This happens a handful of times in the film, including a lovely, late sequence in which Kubo “animates” his mother’s words as she finally unfolds her whole story. These dazzling moments are like miniature, stop-motion movies nestled inside a larger one (something like Ash’s tiny train set in Fantastic Mr. Fox). They cause us to focus our attention on the details within the detail—to concentrate in the exact way that the film’s opening demands.
Not all of Kubo and the Two Strings is as intimately scaled. Eventually the main narrative becomes a straightforward adventure plot, complete with a trio of sidekicks: Kubo’s little origami samurai, who faithfully points his sword in the direction they should travel; a bristling, protective monkey (Charlize Theron) whose eyes are in a constant state of narrowing; and a man-sized beetle (Matthew McConaughey) with memory issues. There is a wonderfully fantastical sequence in which this group has a run-in with a giant skeleton (the tiny swords of vanquished foes are poking out of its skull), but eventually the action sequences become monotonous. And the shifting dynamic between the monkey and beetle—for unnecessarily complicated narrative reasons—never allows them to emerge as clearly defined characters.
Yet if Laika’s storytelling and character development here may not reach the level of the best Pixar (or its own Coraline), the movie still marks a significant achievement in large-scale, hand-crafted animated artistry. At one point Kubo sends a flock of paper birds swirling around a bewildered, actual bird, and the stop-motion animation of the latter is so enchanting that we forget that it, too, is “fake.” When the craftsmanship is this masterful, we can still be fooled—no matter how closely we’re watching.